Scholarly Musings: Dolphins, Wolves, and Neo-Transcendentalists (oh my!)

Julie of the Wolves

The messages in Jean Craighead George’s novel are even clearer, and the ultimate attitude toward human society even more troubled, though her main character spends a much shorter time alone in the wilderness than Karana.  Unlike Karana’s story, thirteen-year-old Miyax’s is told from a third-person point of view.  It is a limited omniscient narrator who interprets aspects of Miyax’s personality and her experience, and thus readers are more distanced from Miyax than from Karana.

This narrative style also affects how we receive the novel’s messages—they feel more objective, an observer’s account of the main character’s feelings rather than the feelings themselves.  On the other hand, Miyax’s experience comes across as more intense and distressing because the narrator focuses deeply on those few months during which the girl was lost, whereas Karana would gloss over years of her life, beginning a chapter with statements such as, “Another summer had come” or “After two more springs had gone,” making the idea of her isolation seem less distressing.

Published twelve years after O’Dell’s novel, George’s begins with the main character already in the wilderness.  Miyax, called Julie in English, has been lost for about a week on Alaska’s North Slope and has stumbled upon a pack of wolves.  She, like Karana, was on her way to another land—an unfamiliar land—when fate somehow intervened.  In Karana’s case, no ship came to rescue her for eighteen years because, as she found out later, the one that took her community “had sunk in a great storm soon after it reached” its destination, and “on the whole ocean thereabouts there was no other” (O’Dell 185).  Miyax was on her way to Point Hope, Alaska, to catch a ship traveling to San Francisco, where a friend lived.

She had been on her way to see the television and carpeting in Amy’s school, the glass buildings, traffic lights, and stores full of fruits; on her way to the harbor that never froze and the Golden Gate Bridge [10]

… Unfortunately, she miscalculated how many supplies she would need to take, and misjudged the landscape.  Within about a week, she was out of food and had realized the landscape would challenge her much more than she expected…

Now, like Karana in the early part of her isolation, Miyax knows she needs to use the animals around her in order to survive.  From her father, she had learned it was possible for humans to communicate with wolves, though he hadn’t elaborated on how.  So Miyax observed the wolves, observed

which of their sounds and movements expressed goodwill and friendship.  […] If she could discover such a gesture for the wolves she would be able to make friends with them and share their food.

(Pgs. 6-7)

Like Karana, Miyax notices human-like qualities in the animals.  She thinks of the wolves’ leader, for example, as “regal” and wants to ask his help first because he reminds Miyax of her father—“he walked like her father, Kapugen, with his head high and his chest out” (7).

Readers learn more about Miyax’s father than about Karana’s, and her relationship with him comes across as a closer one.  Like the children imagined by early nineteenth century writers, Miyax had begun to internalize the lessons she learned from her parent.  Whenever she felt scared, for example, she would remember Kapugen’s words:  “‘Change your ways when fear seizes,’ he had said, ‘for it usually means you are doing something wrong’” (42).  … It was from her father that Miyax felt she learned the most important lessons, especially during her community’s increasing shift away from traditional Eskimo ways.

Before this shift really began to affect her, Miyax remembers her life with her father as ideal.  They had lived at a seal camp, and her time there had been “infinitely good” (76).  Kapugen taught her the proper ways of understanding animals:  “‘Wolves are brotherly,’ he said. ‘They love each other, and if you learn to speak to them, they will love you too’” (78).  Even though he hunted animals for food or clothing, Kapugen taught his daughter how to respect the environment, convincing her that the traditional Eskimos “‘live as no other people can, for [they] truly understand the earth’” (81).

Thus, when she lived with her father, Miyax was adamant about being called by her Eskimo name rather than “Julie.”  And yet, as a child of only nine years, she could not protest when an aunt arrived, insisting Miyax must leave the seal camp and go to school, whereas her father had to go to war for the government (82-83).

Different adults, as well as Miyax’s peers, carried different opinions about the society’s shift toward modern ways.  One girl laughed at Miyax when she called a charm bracelet an “i’noGo tied”—“the Eskimo word for the house of the spirits”—and soon Miyax herself began to buy into these “new attitudes of the Americanized Eskimos” (85).  When an American man asked if she would like to keep in contact with his daughter in San Francisco, Miyax soon became enthralled by Amy’s descriptions and her invitations (87-88).  After she married Daniel [a boy who would later try to rape Miyax] and moved in with his family, “the letters from Amy became the most important thing in Julie’s life and the house in San Francisco grew more real than the house in Barrow” (97).  Thus, the reader can see how difficult it is for a child to find his or her own true convictions amidst such sociopolitical changes.

But her months in the wilderness would change Miyax, would help her sort out her own beliefs.  After much effort, she learns to communicate with the wolves by gestures such as patting the leader under the chin, and they accept her as one of their pack.  They treat her as a pup—as evidenced, for instance, when Miyax is able to take some milk from a nursing mother, or when the pack kills a member who steals from Miyax.  …  Most important of the wolves, for Miyax, is Amaroq, the leader who reminds her of Kapugen.  Soon Miyax begins to call this wolf her “adopted father” (166, 122).  In fact, this wolf will become more of a father than Kapugen.

Other aspects of the wilderness also help change Miyax’s mind about the modern world.  With no people around, it was to the environment that she needed to turn for direction.  In the early part of her isolation, in addition to observing the wolves, Miyax remembers how to read the direction of plants such as lichens and the shapes of ponds.  After some time, she realizes how important “simple” traditional tools such as needles and matches can be, compared to technological “gadgets” (121).  In these scenes, the narrator provides the most didactic statements, sharing Miyax’s insights in order to teach readers who have not had similar opportunities to be alone in the wilderness.  After realizing the importance of ordinary, traditional tools, Miyax muses that

The people at seal camp had not been as outdated and old-fashioned as she had been led to believe.  No, on the contrary, they had been wise.  They had adjusted to nature instead of to man-made gadgets.

(Pg. 121)

Miyax becomes less and less enthusiastic about her plan to reach San Francisco, and less distressed at the idea of not reaching human civilization soon.  Knowing how to find food and shelter from raw materials, she imagines “she could live well until another year” (123).  When she finally does stumble upon a sign of human civilization—an oil drum—it has been only a few months, from about August to December, as evidenced by Miyax’s periodic observations of the weather and the sun’s movement.

Now, close to the novel’s end, Miyax hesitates, unsure whether she wants to complete her original plan at all. By now she has so internalized the lessons of the environment that she enjoys life with the wolves—

she liked the simplicity of that world.  It was easy to understand.  Out here she understood how she fitted into the scheme of the moon and stars and the constant rise and fall of life on the earth.

(Pg. 130)

Again, one recalls Evernden’s discussion of the better ways of connecting with the earth.  In Evernden’s terms, Miyax is displaying “what it feels like to have a territory,” to have “a strong affinity to a particular place.” [11]  This affinity for the land will become an aversion toward the human world when the latter suddenly attacks Miyax and the wolves.  As she reaches the oil drum, she notices a small plane in the distance, approaching.  Realizing it is a hunting plane, Miyax fears she may be mistaken for an animal and tries to hide.  Suddenly she sees her beloved Amaroq, the wolf she associated with her father, shot down and left there—not even gathered for bounty.

But this is not the worst revelation of what the modern world is really like.  Already, Miyax has rejected her original dream of going to San Francisco—Amy’s home is “red with [Amaroq’s] blood” now (148).  But the worst revelation comes when, at the end of the novel, Miyax finds her way to a town called Kangik and realizes her father is there.  As she enters Kapugen’s house, greeted happily by her father, she sees Kapugen’s helmet and goggles—the equipment of a pilot, the very pilot, it is implied, who shot Amaroq.  In response to Miyax’s confused look, Kapugen gives only the excuse that “‘It’s the only way to hunt today.  The seals are scarce and the whales are almost gone; but sportsmen can still hunt from planes’” (168).  Her father has sold out, turned away from all the morals he once taught Miyax.

. . . . . . . .

2012 Recap:

Both George and O’Dell, unlike earlier children’s authors who believed in parental authority as key to a child’s moral/ethical development, suggest that children can gain a better education from non-human Nature than from human society.  In this way, on the other hand, George and O’Dell are turning back to the 19th century, echoing the Transcendentalists’ messages about self-reliance and the need for an individual, personal connection with nature.

Though George’s novel is more pessimistic about human society than O’Dell’s, one could still imagine that, in time, if children like Miyax and Karana carry the lessons they learned from the non-human world into adulthood, they could create a new society–one that can once again be a positive role model for future children.

. . . . . . . .

Phew!  What do y’all think?  What were your impressions of these two books?  What other 20th century Juv/YA novels have you encountered with Transcendentalist themes – either the themes I discussed here, or others?  Are there any 21st century novels that you think have neo-Transcendentalist themes?


[1] Russell Goodman.  “Transcendentalism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition).  Edward N. Zalta (ed.) <;.

[2] Anne Scott MacLeod.  “Children’s Literature for a New Nation, 1820-1860.”  American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.  Athens, Georgia & London: U of Georgia P, 1994.  Pg. 88.

[3] MacLeod.  “Images: American Children in the Early Nineteenth Century.”  American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.  Athens, Georgia & London: U of Georgia P, 1994.  Pg. 137.

[4] Robert V. Hine.  The American West: An Interpretive History.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973.  Pg. 238.

[5] MacLeod.  “Children’s Literature…” Pg. 97.

[6] MacLeod.  “The Transformation of Childhood in Twentieth-Century Children’s Literature.”  American Childhood: Essays on Children’s Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.  Athens, Georgia & London: U of Georgia P, 1994.  Pgs. 199-200.

[7] Scott O’Dell.  Island of the Blue Dolphins.  1960.  New York: Dell Publishing—Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1978.  Pg. 188.

[8] The edition used for this paper is published by Dell, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, under the imprint “Laurel-Leaf Historical Fiction.”

[9] Neil Evernden.  “Beyond Ecology: Self, Place, and the Pathetic Fallacy.”  The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology.  Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm.  Athens and London: U of Georgia P, 1996.  Pg. 100.

[10] Jean Craighead George.  Julie of the Wolves.  1972.  New York: Harper Trophy—Harper & Row, 1974.  Pg. 12.

[11] Evernden, 97.

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